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UK ‘halfway to net zero as emissions tumble 11% during pandemic’

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The UK is halfway to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero after a record annual fall in pollution during the pandemic, analysis shows.

But emissions are likely to increase as the economy recovers, highlighting the challenge in cutting carbon in areas such as transport and housing to meet the goal to end the UK’s contribution to climate change by 2050.

The assessment by climate and energy website Carbon Brief estimates that UK greenhouse gases fell by 11% in 2020, the biggest annual fall in at least 30 years and a bigger drop than after the global financial crisis in 2009.

The significant reduction in 2020 means the UK has seen emissions fall 51% since 1990, the benchmark year for measuring greenhouse gas reductions under laws to tackle the climate crisis.

The law requires the UK to cut greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050 – a 100% reduction on 1990 levels – by reducing emissions as much as possible and taking steps such as planting trees to offset any remaining pollution.

Last year marked the halfway point in the 60-year period to achieve net zero, and the analysis showed emissions were down more than half, from 794 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 1990 to 389 million tonnes in 2020.

But last year’s falls, which helped push UK emission cuts past the halfway point, were largely the result of lockdown reducing car use and gas-powered electricity, as well as warmer weather that cut heating demand, analysts said.

Emissions will likely rise again in 2021 or 2022 as the economy recovers from the pandemic and people increasingly get back in their cars, Carbon Brief said.

In 2020 around 60% of the annual reduction came from lower oil use, mostly a reduction in petrol and diesel sales as lockdown took hold, costing the Treasury around £5 billion in lost fuel duty revenues, the analysis said.

While there may be an increase in home working after restrictions are lifted, that could be offset by nervousness over using public transport which encourages people to drive.

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